Since Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, there has been increased concern in the West over Moscow’s influence in the Western Balkans. Various European countries have warned against the potential for Russia’s destabilisation of the region in light of the invasion, while expressing their support for the region’s EU integration.[3]

Although fears about malign Russian intentions and a spillover effect of the war are not unfounded, it is important to note that on their own merits, the Western Balkans as such are not among the key foreign policy priorities of the Kremlin. Although Russian foreign policy is not very transparent and tends to be tailored to local conditions, the foreign policy doctrines of the Russian Federation can offer an indication of national interests as well as priority areas for Russia. The last time a major Russian Federation public strategic foreign policy document mentioned the Balkans was over ten years ago in the 2013 Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation:

66. Russia aims to develop comprehensive pragmatic and equitable cooperation with Southeast European countries. The Balkan region is of great strategic importance to Russia, including its role as a major transportation and infrastructure hub used for supplying gas and oil to European countries.[4]

This was only the second time the Balkans were mentioned in such a public document and also the last time – the 2016 and 2023 updates did not speak of the region again.[5] After the cancellation of the South Stream plans in 2014, the role Russia foresaw for the Balkan region to supply oil and gas to Europe has faded into the background. Since Russia’s largescale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, this trend has further solidified as Russian supply and European demand for Russian gas declined significantly and the EU imposed import restrictions on Russian oil.

Since 2013, other important Russian strategic documents have not mentioned the region, for example the Humanitarian Policy of the Russian Federation Abroad in 2022, and looking for mentions of the (Western) Balkans in Vladimir Putin’s speeches, a similar observation can be made.[6]

Putin spoke relatively frequently about the Balkans only in the beginning of his presidency, as Figure 1 shows. He discussed the region as a general topic with other heads of state,[7] as an area with potential for conflict,[8] or in relation to the risk of ‘balkanisation’ for Russia.[9]

Figure 1
Frequency with which Russian President Putin mentions the Balkans, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia in his speeches and other appearances between 2000 and 2022[10]
Frequency with which Russian President Putin mentions the Balkans, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia in his speeches and other appearances between 2000 and 2022

After 2001, however, Putin’s attention faded away, only to resume briefly upon his return to the presidency in 2012 – this time, however, with an overwhelming focus on Serbia rather than the region at large. Out of the 719 times Putin mentioned either Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, or the wider region between 2012 and 2022, the vast majority (598) of mentions concerned Serbia.

Although the Western Balkans are not a key foreign policy priority for the Kremlin on their own merits, Russia nevertheless pursues several objectives in the region as part of its global geopolitical ambitions.

Projecting great power status

For Russia, its policy towards the Western Balkans is fuelled by a desire to be an influential power on the world stage, able to project its power abroad. Similar to the geopolitical setting of the 19th century world, in which Russia as an equal to the other great powers divided global spheres of influence, Putin wishes to, as other scholars have noted, ‘make Russia great again’.[11] Moscow considers this aspiration more important than establishing meaningful relationships with countries in the Western Balkans, as it seeks to prove Russia is one of the key players in European and international affairs.[12]

The Western Balkans are enclosed between EU and NATO member states, with some having joined these organisations in the past decade, and are not part of what Russia considers to be its special sphere of influence in its proclaimed ‘near abroad’.[13] Nevertheless, Russia does consider its role in the region to be important – in particular in relation to Serbia.[14] This includes the country’s historical relations with the region, stemming back from the times of the Russian Empire, which Russia now spins as a return to the Balkans in protection of its ‘Slavic brothers’.[15]

The historical relations of Russia with the region are ‘heavily mythologised’, however. There were brief periods of alliances with the region, which were interrupted by conflict, and longer periods of a cooling-down of relations.[16] Nevertheless, history is frequently raised in Russian sources when talking about the importance of the Western Balkans. A publication from the Russian International Affairs Council, in which Russia is described as a ‘flank player’ in the Balkans, for example, opens with the following quote from a Russian historian and diplomat more than 150 years ago:

Far to the west and south-west of the border of the Russian Empire there are peoples whose speech is understandable for Russians, whose ancestors were one tribe with Russians and most of whom profess our orthodox faith and pray to God in the same Russian language as we do. These peoples – brothers of Russians and loving Russians as brothers – are called Slavs.[17]

Other sources make such references as well, and so do Russian policymakers. For example, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov said in 2022 that, ‘A century and a half ago Russia secured the independence of the Balkan countries, and after the [second world] war they became our allies (Bulgaria), or neutral, but close to us (Yugoslavia).’[18]

Obstructing Western influence, and keeping the West out of the region where possible

One of Vladimir Putin's most stated ambitions is his desire to establish a multipolar world order, in which Russia is an equal among other powers on the world stage, and this ambition extends to the Western Balkans.[19] Putin wants to uphold the position Russia currently enjoys in the region while preventing Western influence from growing.[20] In particular, this implies countering Euro-Atlantic integration – NATO as well as EU expansion.

After Russia increasingly viewed the region through an economic lens under Putin’s third presidency, as expressed in the abovementioned 2013 Foreign Policy Concept, the failure of South Stream led to this economic ambition fading into the background.[21] Once again, reacting to NATO expansion in the Western Balkans became a key Russian priority, as Putin aims to obstruct Euro-Atlantic integration and prevent states that have not yet joined NATO from doing so.

For over two decades Russia has attempted to create divisions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and tried to undermine the formation of a coherent foreign policy in that country to prevent it from joining NATO.[22] In particular, Moscow maintains close relations with politicians and proxy groups in the Republika Srpska (RS), one of the two BiH entities.[23] In terms of countering NATO integration, the success of this alliance with the RS is limited. BiH joined the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme in 2006 and is participating in a Membership Action Plan with NATO,[24] despite attempts by RS president Milorad Dodik to prevent and delay such cooperation.

From the Russian perspective, a spoiler role is much less required in Serbia, which is traditionally closer to Russia and does not strive for NATO membership,[25] although it should be noted that Serbia joined the NATO PfP programme in 2006 and agreed a first two-year NATO Individual Partnership Action Plan in 2015.[26] Putin has signalled openness to Serbia’s EU ambitions in the past, hoping that Serbian EU membership could secure Russia a ‘trojan horse’ within the Union.[27] Nowadays the picture is different, especially as it is clear that Serbia will be able to join the EU only when it fully meets the Copenhagen criteria, including full alignment with the EU’s Common Foreign Security Policy (CFSP), and when its relationship with Kosovo is normalised.[28]

Utilising the Balkans as a tool

As well as obstructing the Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkans and seeking to project its great power status, Russia also utilises the region as a tool in other contexts.

On the international stage, Russia uses the region to justify its aggressive foreign policy, of which the way Putin talks about Kosovo is a strong example. On many occasions, Russia has invoked the NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999 and the Western recognition of (and support for) Kosovo as a justification for its own policies. NATO’s 1999 intervention, conducted as a response to ethnic cleansing, but without a UN mandate, constitutes ‘the West’s original sin’ in the eyes of the Kremlin.[29] Additionally, the war in Kosovo raised an alert for Russian leaders, as they regarded Western actions as unilateral, with no account taken of Russian concerns. Additionally, the war in Kosovo once again made Russian leaders aware of the country’s vulnerability to ethnic conflict and separatism inside and on its borders as it took place a few years after the First Chechen War in 1994 and simultaneously with the Second Chechen War.[30]

Currently, Putin invokes these affairs to justify his war of aggression against Ukraine, for example, and has done the same on earlier occasions. After the Russian war against Georgia, Putin used the ‘precedent set by Kosovo’ to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia;[31] he did the same later with Crimea, and with the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People's Republic’ and ‘Luhansk People's Republic’ in the east of Ukraine.[32]

Russian attention on the Western Balkans as part of its broader foreign policy has faded away over the past few years. Russia is now primarily interested in obstructing EU and NATO integration and projecting its great power status, and mostly takes up a spoiler role in the region with attempts at destabilisation. Russia seeks to overload the capacity of European and American policymakers in the region through its destabilisation efforts.[33] This can be considered a ‘tit-for-tat’ strategy vis-à-vis the EU.[34] The EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood policy, and more recently its conferring of EU membership perspective to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, is viewed by Russia as meddling in its sphere of influence. It therefore seeks to turn the table in a ‘you mess in our region, we mess in yours’ style of reasoning.

In short, Russia sees the region as a tool that can be used to project its great power status on the one hand, while obstructing the West and sowing the seeds of unrest on the other. As the following sections of this paper will show, however, Russia does not seem to be willing to invest in institutionalised and broader relations with the three countries in the region. The policy that follows Russian goals in the Western Balkans comes across as largely devoid of substance.

For example, Italy argued that Europe needs to expand its presence in the region to limit Russian influence, the UK has sent military specialists to BiH to oppose Russian influence there, and NATO foreign ministers pledged their support for (among others) the Western Balkans region amid fears for destabilisation by Russia. See: John Irish, “Europe needs to limit Russian influence in Balkans, Italy says”, Reuters, November 30, 2022; Muvija M, “UK sends military experts to counter Russian influence in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, Reuters, June 30, 2022; John Irish, Luiza Ilie, and Sabine Siebold, “NATO seeks to reassure Russia's neighbours fearful of instability”, Reuters, November 30, 2022.
Earlier, only the 2008 version of the Russian Foreign Policy Concept spoke of the region: ‘Russia is open for further expansion of pragmatic and mutually respecting cooperation with the States of Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe taking into account genuine readiness to do so on the part of each of them.’ See: Kremlin, “The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation,’’ January 12, 2008.
Vladimir Putin, “Joint Press Conference with US President George W. Bush,” President of Russia, November 13, 2001; Vladimir Putin, “A Russian-German intergovernmental summit has taken place,” President of Russia, October 15, 2007; Vladimir Putin, “Interview with the French Newspaper Le Figaro,” President of Russia, October 26, 2000.
Vladimir Putin, “Remarks at a Meeting of Top Members of the Russian Diplomatic Service”, President of Russia, January 26, 2001.
Vladimir Putin, “Interview with the ORT TV Channel,” February 7, 2000.
Based on transcripts between December 1999 and 9 May 2023, in a corpus of 12,000+ sources. See: President of Russia, News.
Mark Galeotti, “Do the Western Balkans Face a Coming Russian Storm?,” European Council on Foreign Relations, April 4, 2018.
Vsevolod Scamokhvalov, “Russia in the Balkans: Great Power Politics and Local Respo n se,” Insight Turkey, May 31, 2019; Vuk Vuksanović, “Russia in the Balkans: Interests and Instruments,'' Europe and Russian on the Balkan Front: Geopolitics and Diplomacy in the EU’s Backyard, Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale ISPI, March 2023; Dimitar Bechev, “Russia’s Strategic Interests and Tools of Influence in the Western Balkans,” Atlantic Council, December 20, 2019.
‘Near abroad’ is a Russian phrasing for states that were part of the Soviet Union. The Russian Valdai Club think tank phrases the Russian perspective on its proclaimed influence insightfully: ‘Russia cannot but accept its imperial heritage. It is widely known that Russia has a particularly significant influence over the countries of the near abroad.’ See: Zhao Huasheng, ‘’Russia and its Near Abroad: Challenges and prospects,’’ Valdai, March 9, 2021.
James McBride, “Russia’s influence in the Balkans,’’ Council on Foreign Relations, December 2, 2022.
Stanislav Secrieru, “Russia in the Western Balkans: Tactical Wins, Strategic Setbacks,” European Union Institute for Security Studies, July 2, 2019; Vsevolod Scamokhvalov, “Russia in the Balkans: Great Power Politics and Local Response,” Insight Turkey, May 31, 2019.
Petr Akopov, “novyj front vojny s Rossiej [New front in the war with Russia],”, June 6, 2022.
Stanislav Secrieru, “Russia in the Western Balkans: Tactical Wins, Strategic Setbacks,” European Union Institute for Security Studies, July 2, 2019.
K. Hudolej, E. Koloskov, “Politika Rossii na Balkanah: Sovremennoe Sostojanie i Perspektivy[Russia's Policy in the Balkans: Current State and Prospects],” Mirovaja Jekonomika i Mezhdunarodnye Otnoshenija [World Jekonomika and International Relations], 2021, 90-99.
Majda Ruge, “The Past and the Furious: How Russia’s Revisionism Threatens Bosnia,” European Council on Foreign Relations, September 13, 2022; Samir Beharic, “Bosnia and Herzegovina: a geopolitical mission for the EU,” Europe and Russian on the Balkan Front: Geopolitics and Diplomacy in the EU’s Backyard, Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale, March 2023.
O.E. Grishin, B. Kenich, “Bosnija i Gercegovina kak Ob"ekt Vozdejstvija Mjagkoj Sily SShA, Rossii i ES [Bosnia and Herzegovina as an object of influence on the USA, Russia and the EU],” PolitBook, 2017, 49-63.
NATO, “Relations with Bosnia and Herzegovina,” last updated 12 July 2022.
Recently, Aleksandar Vucic reiterated that Serbia will continue to strive for military neutrality and does not wish to join NATO. See: “Seria maintain ‘military neutrality’, president says,’’ Aljazeera, February 2, 2023.
NATO, “Relations with Serbia”, 23 May 2023.
Mark Galeotti, “Do the Western Balkans face a coming Russian storm?” European Council on Foreign Relations, April 3, 2018.
For the Copenhagen criteria, see: EUR-lex, ‘Accession criteria (Copenhagen criteria)’, accessed 5 July 2023.
Jade McGlynn, “Why Putin keeps talking about Kosovo,” Foreign Policy, March 3, 2022.
Vuk Vuksanović, “Russia in the Balkans: Interests and Instruments,’’ Europe and Russia on the Balkan Front: Geopolitics and Diplomacy in the EU’s Backyard, Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale, March 2023, 34.
Paul Stronski, “Russia in the Balkans after Ukraine: A Troubling Actor,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 20, 2022.
Stanislav Secrieru, “Russia in the Western Balkans: Tactical Wins, Strategic Setbacks,” European Union Institute for Security Studies, July 2019.